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George Murray named new poet laureate of St. John’s

The City of St. John’s has appointed George Murray as its new poet laureate, a position he will hold for the next four years.

Murray is the author of six poetry collections, including Whiteout and The Glimpse: Selected Aphorisms (both by ECW Press). This spring he will publish his first children’s book, Wow Wow and Haw Haw (Breakwater Books), illustrated by Michael Pittman.

From 2003 to 2011, Murray was editor and publisher of the literary website Bookninja.com. He reviews poetry and fiction for The Globe and Mail and has been a part-time faculty member at the University of Toronto, The New School University, and Humber College. He is a former poetry editor of the Literary Review of Canada.

Murray is the city’s third poet laureate, following Tom Dawe (2010–2013) and Agnes Walsh (2006–2009).

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League of Canadian Poets reveals award shortlists

The League of Canadian Poets kicked off National Poetry Month by announcing the shortlists for its three annual awards.

The Raymond Souster Award is given for a book of poetry by an LCP member published in the preceding year. The Gerald Lampert Memorial Award recognizes the best first book of poetry published by a Canadian, and the Pat Lowther Memorial Award is given for a book of poetry by a Canadian woman. The winners, each of whom receives $1,000, will be announced at the LCP Poetry Festival and Conference in Toronto on June 7.

The shortlists are:

Raymond Souster Award

  • seldom seen road, Jenna Butler (NeWest Press)
  • Alongside, Anne Compton (Fitzhenry & Whiteside)
  • Her Red Hair Rises with the Wings of Insects, Catherine Graham (Wolsak & Wynn)
  • Rebel Women, Vancy Kaspar (Inanna Publications)
  • Brilliant Falls, John Terpstra (Gaspereau Press)
  • Birds, Metals, Stones & Rain, Russell Thornton (Harbour Publishing)

Gerald Lampert Memorial Award

  • the place of scraps, Jordan Abel (Talonbooks)
  • Rove, Laurie D. Graham (Hagios Press)
  • Light Light, Julie Joosten (BookThug)
  • Surge Narrows, Emilia Nielsen (Leaf Press)
  • The Survival Rate of Butterflies in the Wild, Murray Reiss (Hagios)
  • Incarnate, Juleta Severson-Baker (Frontenac House Poetry)

Pat Lowther Memorial Award

  • The Hottest Summer in Recorded History, Elizabeth Bachinsky (Nightwood Editions)
  • Alongside, Anne Compton (Fitzhenry & Whiteside)
  • Leaving Howe Island, Sadiqa de Meijer (Oolichan Books)
  • Whirr and Click, Micheline Maylor (Frontenac House Poetry)
  • Meeting the Tormentors in Safeway, Alexandra Oliver (Biblioasis)
  • Status Update, Sarah Yi-Mei Tsiang (Oolichan)

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George Elliott Clarke on marathon-writing poetry

George Elliott Clarke (photo: Camelia Linta)

Traverse is a happy accident. I wrote it without knowing that I was writing a book-length poem. Its genesis was whimsical: 30 years after writing my first poems – really, songs – on July 1, 1975 (at age 15), I found myself back in my home city of Halifax. I spent most of July 1, 2005, writing 854 lines reflecting on my adult life as a poet.

The writing was a one-day marathon.

I crafted 61 free-verse, “sonnet” stanzas, with absolute liberty granted to line lengths. Diction was also freely engaged, mixing “black” registers of speech and idiomatic expression with the standard, Oxford-Webster terms. The antecedent form of Traverse is, I hope, the folk-blues ballad, and I have come to think of these stanzas as “Rap sonnets,” for they should be read aloud. I titled the resulting poem “Thirty Years: 1975–2005,” and, in 2006, began to publish portions sequentially.

When Barry and Michael Callaghan of Exile Editions approached me last October to ask about creating a book out of the long poem, I realized that I should add nine stanzas as a coda, basically updating the story to 2013. The final pieces in the book were written on Dec. 1, 2013.

Traverse is autobiographical, more or less, and so it is accordingly frank. I never thought the poem would appear as a book, but once it became apparent that it would, it did behoove me to render some incidents in a dodgy, sketchy, euphemistic, or circumlocutory manner. Moreover, I had to withhold names and places, here and there, to protect truly innocent persons who cared for me and gave me love, never expecting that these gestures would be commented upon in a poem whose vision must be personal – or eccentric – and therefore open to  misinterpretation.

I do feel good about the writing. The poem just “flowed,” as the cliché would have it. It also felt good to wonder about the astonishing future that my early pursuit of letters created for me, a lad outta Africadia – that archipelago of historical black communities in Nova Scotia, born some 250 years ago out of slavery and resistance to slavery, and victimized ever since by illiteracy, poverty, and injustice (i.e., racism).

Traverse covers 38 years of my life. Although the incidents in the book are quote-unquote true, I have forgotten many events, and I likely haven’t indicated sufficiently just how unusual it was that a 15-year-old, working-class “coloured” guy from the wrong end of Halifax should have decided to pick up coloured markers (not pens or pencils) and begin to compose tuneless “songs,” delighting in creating each one in a rainbow array of tints. But I started out thus.

I won my first poetry prize when I was 21, for a manuscript based on Africadian history. That led one of the judges, Lesley Choyce, to offer me a publishing contract with Pottersfield Press, and so my first book came out in 1983, when I was 23. I showed the book to my father, who was a railway worker (he later became a taxi driver). He stunned me by looking at it and setting it aside. I think he was feeling regret for not having pursued his own artistic talent. Later on, he became so proud of me that he was always talking me up to passengers in his taxi, including a certain Alistair MacLeod. The poem “Taxi,” from my 2011 collection Red, is about two of his customers who disbelieved his claim that he had a poet for a son.

When I got my doctorate in English from Queen’s University in 1993, I was only the fifth native-born Africadian in 200 years to obtain this degree. My mother attended the convocation, and stood there with tears in her eyes, for she had pioneered early childhood education in Halifax in the 1960s and ’70s. Before Alexa McDonough led the NDP in Nova Scotia and nationally, she worked for my mom, and was my kindergarten teacher.

There has been so much serendipity in my life as a poet. I can complain of nothing. (I’ve even met the Dalai Lama!) I feel blessed to have worked at Queen’s Park, on Parliament Hill, and as a social worker,  newspaper editor, and publisher, and I have a decades-old biweekly newspaper column in the Halifax Chronicle-Herald. I am especially blessed to be a dad.

Best thing is: I’ve not stopped revelling in this art that I came to almost four decades ago. I pray I might be permitted to author a few more books – including, maybe, Traverse, Too.

Poet, playwright, and novelist George Elliott Clarke is Toronto’s fourth poet laureate. He is the William Lyon Mackenzie King visiting associate professor of Canadian studies at Harvard University. His latest volume of poetry, Traverse, is published by Exile Editions.

From the April 2014 print edition of Q&Q.

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James Franco talks poetry with Jimmy Fallon

James Franco appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon on Friday to discuss the release of his new poetry collection, Directing Herbert White, which hits shelves on April 15. The collection will be published in Canada by House of Anansi Press and by Graywolf Press in the U.S.

“I know how an actor writing poetry sounds,” Franco told Fallon, adding that he wrote the book during his four years at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina, where he earned his MFA in poetry.

Anansi publicity director Laura Repas says Franco’s appearance on The Tonight Show is a good media hit for the title. Franco’s busy schedule – he makes his Broadway debut tomorrow in the adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men – makes a Canadian launch difficult to plan, but Repas hopes to arrange an event if he travels here in the coming months.

Directing Herbert White references a short film Franco directed, based on a poem by Frank Bidart, who recently won the National Book Critics Circle award for his collection Metaphysical Dog. Bidart blurbed Franco’s collection, saying, “Hollywood – fame, celebrity, the promise of becoming an artist – is the beast at its center. Franco knows it like Melville knows whaling.”

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Christian Bok’s Eunoia adapted for contemporary dance

(photo: Jeremy Mimnagh)

Christian Bök’s international best-selling book of poetry, Eunoia (Coach House Books), has inspired a Norwegian black-metal elegy, a 12-minute rock medley, and several classical scores, one of which was performed at Carnegie Hall. Now, the 2002 Griffin Prize–winning book has been adapted for contemporary dance.

Toronto choreographer Denise Fujiwara is the ambitious force behind Eunoia, a dance performance happening from March 19 to 22 at Toronto’s Enwave Theatre. Fujiwara discovered her old copy of the book while looking for a piece of text to use in a score. “It was dense and clever and strange,” she says. “I didn’t know how I was going to do it.”

Eunoia, which took Bök seven years to write, is based on a univocalic structure: each of the narratives in its five chapters contains only one vowel. Bök consulted during the early creative process, suggesting that Fujiwara’s choreography should also “embody constraints and procedurals.”

“Simply dramatizing it would be less interesting,” he says. “This is more whimsical.”

Fujiwara began experimenting with various constraints, trying to find a balance between the literal and abstract. For instance, the dancers’ movements could only be initiated by vowel-specific body parts (e.g. knees, heels). “At first I thought it was impossible,” she says, “but it caused me to be more innovative.”

During the performance, the dancers will recite Bök’s poems using a single microphone (another constraint presented by Fujiwara). Lighting, video, and the score are also controlled. For each chapter’s music, composer Phil Strong only played one dedicated black key on the piano. He also incorporated vowel-specific instrumentation, such as harp, bass, and maracas.

“Nothing is random,” says Fujiwara. “Everything relates, but not in a narrative way. You begin seeing things as it goes on: a handclap is also a word, flinch is an ‘i’ word.”

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Jeremy Stewart wins Robert Kroetsch Award

British Columbia poet Jeremy Stewart has won this year’s Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry for his manuscript Hidden City. He receives a contract with Invisible Publishing’s Snare imprint and a $500 advance.

In a statement, award judge Ken Babstock says, “Hidden City could be any of our cities. It could be your town. It’s certainly one of the clattering, desperate voices we all carry around inside. This is a crackling, energetic, desperate suite of poems. Weird and worrying.”

Stewart was nominated for the prize in 2008 for his collection flood basement, which was published in 2009 by Caitlin Press.

Hidden City will be published in October.

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Watch: David O’Meara and Hilotrons get animated

Ottawa indie band Hilotrons is showing its love for local poet David O’Meara by releasing an album based on his latest collection, A Pretty Sight (Coach House Books).

The album, which features O’Meara reading, will be launched March 8 at the Black Sheep Inn in Wakefield, Quebec. Free downloads will be available.

In the meantime, check out the video for “Hare,” with animation by Bryant Fryer.

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First seven poets-in-residence at Al Purdy’s A-frame announced

A CanLit tradition that started at the late, lauded poet Al Purdy’s Prince Edward County home will continue with a new poet-in-residence program set to launch in July. Seven Canadian writers have been chosen for the first working retreats at the Al Purdy A-frame, where Purdy wrote many of his most celebrated poems and hosted Canadian authors including Margaret Laurence, Milton Acorn, H.R. Percy, Michael Ondaatje, and many others.

According to a press release, the first seven residencies, which will take place over the next two years, have been offered to Katherine Leyton, Sue Sinclair, Nick Thran, Kath MacLean, Laurie Graham, Rob Taylor, and Helen Guri. The residencies will take place in the renovated A-frame house on Roblin Lake, originally built in 1957 by Purdy and his wife, Eurithe Purdy.

Biographies of the participants and details on their proposed projects are listed on the program’s website. Participants will work on a variety of writing projects, from poetry to critical essays. Thran will complete work on his third collection as well as an essay incorporating his “experience on Roblin Lake and what it means to be a Canadian poet in today’s social and political environment.” Guri says she will use the residency to work on her second collection of poetry, tentatively titled Oracle. Many will incorporate an element of community engagement into their stay. For example, in addition to working on her own writing, Leyton will promote the work of Purdy and other local poets while traveling throughout the region.  

Writers will receive a stipend of $2,500 per month for up to three months while living at the A-frame, and are expected to participate in one public event per month in nearby communities including Picton, Belleville, and Kingston.

Fundraising efforts by the Al Purdy A-frame Association are ongoing. Major donations have been received from the Glasswaters Foundation, the Good Foundation, Avie Bennett, The Metcalf Foundation, George Galt, the Chawkers Foundation, Michael Audain, Jeff Mooney and Suzanne Bolton, Leonard Cohen, Rosemary Tannock, Tom and Helen Galt, the Griffin Foundation, Harbour Publishing, and Yosef Wosk.

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Operatic adaptation of Zachariah Wells’ poetry to be performed in Paris

Halifax poet Zachariah Wells is on his way overseas to hear his work performed at the Opéra National in Paris.

Last year, Canadian baritone singer Phillip Addis approached Wells about adapting several of his poems to music. The pieces were debuted at a Toronto recital on Dec. 19, with music composed by Erik Ross and piano accompaniment by Emily Hamper. Wells was unable to attend the Toronto event, and will hear the work for the first time in France.

Wells was unsuccessful in his attempts to get grant money to cover his expenses to attend the performance, and so turned to crowdfunding to help pay for the Paris trip. On the Indiegogo page for his successful campaign, Wells writes, “This is the kind of opportunity that presents itself rarely in most writers’ lifetimes, so I wouldn’t miss it for anything short of a catastrophe.”

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Last Word: Amber Dawn on the role poetry plays in our lives

(photo: Sarah Race)

In March 2012, I pitched a book with the working title How Poetry Saved My Life to my publisher, Arsenal Pulp Press. It was a lousy pitch that suffered from being overambitious. The original idea suggested the book overflow with: 1) a collection of my own poems; 2) a series of essays discussing community-based creative writing as an empowerment tool for under-heard peoples – the story of how I developed my own voice very much included; and 3) select poems from some of the sex workers and street-based writers I work with at various drop-ins around Vancouver.

Fortunately, Arsenal Pulp co-owner Brian Lam had the diplomacy to steer me toward a more focused collection of my own prose and poems that tackles themes of sex and survival. “Your voice is so powerful that a collection of your own work, by itself, would be better,” Lam offered. Swoon! Who wouldn’t want to hear that from a publisher?

A year later, I keep those words of encouragement in mind as I launch a very personal collection of prose and poems. While this book is perhaps more “me” than anything I’ll ever write, poetry as a saving force is certainly not unique to my experience. As my original pitch suggested, poetry offers sanctuary, recognition, and community to those who need it. I know this to be true for the “hard-knocks” writers I connect with at drop-ins. I continually witness how poetry holds the weight of their daily struggles.

But what I didn’t realize is that writing (and reading) poetry is a kind of investment in living for a wide breadth of people.

The first response to my book’s title came from gusty counter-culturalist Elizabeth Bachinksy (God of Missed Connections, The Hottest Summer in Recorded History), who was kind enough to read my manuscript-in-progress.

“Poetry saved my life, too,” Bachinksy declared over lunch. I remember her slapping the table with her palm, making our coffee mugs jump. “If it wasn’t for poetry…. If it wasn’t for poetry.…” Bachinsky couldn’t finish her sentence. The thought of a life without poetry was simply too grave to put into words.

The day I signed my author contract, the essayist Zena Sharman (Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme) sent me a congratulatory text message with a quote from the brilliantly enigmatic Jeanette Winterson, painstakingly typed out on Sharman’s iPhone:

I had no one to help me, but the T.S. Eliot helped me. So when people say that poetry is a luxury, or an option, or for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn’t be read at school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs a tough language – and that is what poetry is. (From Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?)

I’d call most of the poets I read tough, like the wildly intellectual Eileen Myles. (Recently, Poets & Writers magazine posted a quote from Myles’ newest collection, Snowflake, on Tumblr: “I am a bad / place without / paper and pen.”) Myles is a poet who frequently and scrupulously connects the worth of a poem to the worth of her own life, claiming “the material of a poem is energy itself.”

The life-affirming themes that run through Myles’s work must be part of the reason she has gained a large cult following. I was at a literary reading in San Francisco where no fewer than three audience members wore T-shirts that read, “You Got The Styles, Eileen Myles.”  (And Myles wasn’t even reading at the event!)

Before I head out on my Canadian book tour, I’d like to make similar T-shirts that read, “Daphne Marlatt Is Where It’s At” and “Rita Wong Keeps Me Strong.” I think there are scores of writers and readers who would wear a testament to poets with pride.

Why? Because being a poetry lover means also being a lover of life. Each time I bring my fingers to the keyboard, I join the many who explore the complexities, hazards, and beauty of living, who speak the tough and tender words that are too rarely articulated in day-to-day discourse, and create that place where we have permission to do much more than simply survive.

Don’t take my (or my book’s) word for it. Ask one another. How has poetry saved your life?

Amber Dawn is the author of the novel Sub Rosa, and editor of the anthologies Fist of the Spider Women and With a Rough Tongue.

This article first appeared in the April 2013 issue of Q&Q.

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